Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Real Harriet Tubman

 "I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves." -- Harriet Tubman

I LOVE Drunk History.  This episode describes The Combahee River Raid that freed more than 700 slaves, thanks to Harriet Tubman's brilliant strategies.  This show used to be a guilty pleasure but when they're telling the history that's usually ignored -- that is, when the drunk people are giving a more nuanced interpretation of what happened than what's usually taught in schools -- it should give everyone reason to pause, and tune in.  This should be required viewing for high school students. Whatever it takes to reach one and teach one, I'm all for it.

In a perfect world, there would be no Black History Month because if you tell the whole story, everyone is in it.  The problem is that, like Ben Affleck not facing his slave owning ancestry on PBS' Finding Your Roots by forcing the producers to erase it, Americans can't handle the ugly truth of how this country came to be. Instead, they tell their sanitized version, something they're comfortable with -- and ignore what actually happened.  Because white fragility.

You're not supposed to erase history or reimagine it because it makes you uncomfortable.

Until everyone can own their history -- Texas textbooks, anyone? -- Black History Month will be mandatory, for all of us.

If it's one name that gets thrown up in the air whenever it's time to teach black history, it's Harriet Tubman.  The sanitized version of her story is nothing in comparison to what actually happened. Context is everything -- especially when its historical. 

Here's a few fun facts that offer a glimpse of the real Harriet Tubman.
  • Her first name is Araminta. Everybody called her Minty.
  • Click here to read about how white people rented her out as a house slave from the age of five (her first job: winding yarn!) and how, amongst other things, she had to sleep on the kitchen floor at night and share leftover food with the dogs.
  • Minty was only five feet tall.
  • When she was an adolescent, Minty was inadvertently hit in the head by a 2 pound weight by her white master for not helping him restrain a runaway slave. It took her years to recover. This caused epileptic seizures, severe headaches and narcoleptic episodes that she endured for the rest of her life.

    In Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, Kate Clifford Larson writes:

    Bleeding and unconscious, she was returned to her owner's house and laid on the seat of a loom, where she remained without medical care for two days.  She was sent back into the fields, "with blood and sweat rolling down my face until I couldn't see." Her boss said she was "not worth a sixpence" and returned her to her owner Brodess, who tried unsuccessfully to sell her.  She began having seizures and would seemingly fall unconscious, although she claimed to be aware of her surroundings while appearing to be asleep. These episodes were alarming to her family, who were unable to wake her when she fell asleep suddenly and without warning.

  • Minty says that knock on the head made her hallucinate and gave her visions from God. 
  • Of course, she couldn't read or write.  The Slave Codes forbade it. Teaching black slaves -- as well as mulattoes, Native Americans and indentured servants, by the way  -- was punishable by severe fines, multiple lashes and more for the teacher, and much worse than that for the student.
  • A part of the reason why her master didn't pursue her or her family when they escaped to the North could have been because legally, they were free.  In their former master's will, her parents were manumitted at the age of 45 and so were their children. Their present owners simply didn't tell them and kept them working as slaves.
  • Minty's first husband, John Tubman, was a free man.  The mother's slave status determined whether any offspring would be slaves, which may be why they never had children.  She changed her name to Harriet when they got married, probably in preparation for her escape. 

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